(Berlin) – An Azerbaijani journalist known for his reporting on politically sensitive issues was sentenced to two years in prison on June 11, 2012, on fabricated drug possession charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called for an independent review of the conviction of the journalist, Anar Bayramli, including a full investigation of evidence indicating he was framed by authorities in the police station where drugs were allegedly discovered in his possession.
The Binagadi District Court of Baku convicted Bayramli, a journalist for the Iranian satellite television station Sahar TV, on June 11 on charges of illegal drug possession. Bayramli, 31, has been in custody since February 17. His initial interrogation was conducted at 2 a.m. on February 18 without the presence of his lawyer, to which he was entitled under Azerbaijani law.
“We believe that this is yet another example of the abusive tactic Azerbaijani officials seem so fond of, fabricating evidence against critics to punish and silence them,” said Giorgi Gogia, senior South Caucasus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The case against Bayramli falls squarely into what is becoming a pattern of bringing bogus charges, and it sends a chilling message to journalists.”
Sahar TVis affiliated with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (Iran’s state Television) and broadcasts programs in several languages, including Azeri and English. Bayramli worked on video reports about developments in Azerbaijan, such as the trials of Islamic party activists. Azerbaijan-Iran relations have deteriorated in recent months, with each side accusing the other of meddling in its internal affairs to provoke civil unrest.
Bayramli voluntarily went to the local police station at about 7 p.m. on February 17, after police officers went to his home to tell him the police chief wanted to speak with him. Bayramli’s lawyer, Anar Gasimli, told Human Rights Watch that about an hour after Bayramli arrived at the station, police asked him to leave his jacket in one room and then escorted him to another room. The police chief never showed up.
Bayramli was not questioned and after about 10 minutes was escorted back to the first room, where he picked up his coat. Officers then searched him and “discovered” 0.387 grams of heroin in his jacket pocket. Police immediately started a criminal case against him under article 234.1 of the Criminal Code for illegal drug possession and proceeded to interrogate him without the presence of his lawyer.
This was the third time since December 2011 that police had summoned Bayramli. Two days before his arrest, police asked Bayramli to appear at the station, where they questioned him for half an hour about his journalism, his employer, his political affiliation, political views, party membership, and the like. Bayramli’s father was permitted to be present during the questioning.
The state forensic experts concluded that Bayramli did not use drugs, but the court also dismissed the relevance of this evidence as to whether it was credible he arrived at the police station with drugs in his possession.
Police falsely claimed in their report that they detained Bayramli on the street, whereas Bayramli’s family testified that police had come to his home and asked him to accompany them to the police station. The court dismissed his relatives’ testimony as biased and claimed that his relatives were trying to cover for him. The state forensic experts concluded that Bayramli did not use drugs, but the court also dismissed the relevance of this evidence as to whether it was credible he arrived at the police station with drugs in his possession.
“The timing and circumstances of Bayramli’s arrest strongly indicate that he was framed, and there should be a prompt and independent investigation of this evidence,” Gogia said.
Human Rights Watch said that such an investigation is essential not only to ensure justice for Bayramli but also to confront the tactic of fabricating charges, which the Azerbaijani authorities use with impunity to shut down the exercise of freedom of expression.
Azerbaijan has shown itself to be hostile toward free media and other forms of free expression, Human Rights Watch said. Independent journalists, human rights defenders, and others seeking to express their opinions, investigate issues of public interest, or criticize government authorities have been attacked, harassed, threatened, and arrested. Dozens of journalists, social media activists, and human rights defenders have been prosecuted and imprisoned or fined in recent years.
At least five journalists and four human rights defenders are in prison or pretrial detention. The journalists are Aydin Janiyev, Vugar Gonagov, Zaur Guliyev, Avaz Zeynalli, and Anar Bayramli. Two human rights defenders, Vidadi Isganderov and Taleh Khasmammadov, have been sentenced to prison terms of three and four years respectively on dubious charges widely believed to be in retaliation for their criticism of government officials. The other two human rights defenders, Ogtay Gulaliyev and Bakhtiyar Mammadov, are in pretrial detention on spurious extortion and hooliganism charges.
Azerbaijani authorities have repeatedly used bogus drug charges against government critics, among them:
- Jabbar Savalanli, a 21-year-old youth activist convicted in April 2011 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. He was known for criticizing the authorities on social media sites. He was freed in an amnesty in December 2011.
- Eynulla Fatullayev, an outspoken editor who was charged with illegal drug possession while already serving eight and a half years on trumped-up terrorism charges. He was released in 2011 following a 2010 European Court of Human Rights judgment in his favor, ordering his immediate release.
- Mirza Sakit, a satirist and journalist for the newspaper Azadlig, who served three years in prison for alleged heroin possession between 2006 and 2009.